The year was 1995. My friend Randy, his wife Kelly and I were on a cross country road trip from Boston to Las Vegas. We had planned several stops along the way to see different parts of our great country and experience different aspects of American culture. One such stop was about an hour outside Knoxville, Tennessee. Randy had a friend from the Air Force who lived there and insisted that we stop and stay with him and his family on their farm for a night or two. The highlight was to be our attendance at a University of Tennessee football game that weekend against the Georgia Bulldogs.
It is a strange thing, this fascination the people in the south have with college football. It's like a religion. In New England, college football is not real popular. I've always followed it - I'm a huge Notre Dame fan - but not to the extent that the people down south do. We arrived in Knoxville (the home of the University of Tennessee)the morning of the game and literally every other car was adorned in some sort of UT decoration. Many had UT flags flying out of the windows. Some even had huge UT decals on the side doors. I'd never seen anything like it.
Since there are NO Dunkin Donuts anywhere south of the Mason Dixon line, we were forced to conduct all of our coffee refill stops at...wait for it...the Waffle House. We still had an hour or so until we had to meet Randy's friend so we decided to stop and have breakfast at a Waffle House in downtown Knoxville. For a Yankee, going into a Waffle House is like stepping into another world - a world full of rednecks and truckers. We sat in one of the booths and perused the menu. When the waitress finally came over to take our order, she looked at me with disgust. Before I knew what was going on, she yelled out, in a thick southern drawl, "Hey y'all, we got us a Bulldog fan over here!". Upon hearing this, every employee in the place came charging over to our table and started giving me the business. After a minute of examination, I realized what the problem was. Being an ardent fan of international soccer, I was wearing a Manchester United soccer t-shirt. Man United's colors are red and black. UT was playing the Georgia Bulldogs that day and their colors just happened to be...you guessed it.
So there we are in the Waffle House in downtown Knoxville surrounded by angry employees and every customer in the place is staring over at us giving us dirty looks. It actually got pretty tense for a few moments when I really did think I might be subjected to bodily harm. The funniest guy was the cook, an older gentleman with gray hair, greased and slicked back, clad in a dirty white t-shirt and matching apron with a lit cigarette dangling from his lower lip. I tried to explain that we weren't Bulldog fans. I said "No, no, it's a British soccer team! I'm not even from the south, I'm from New England!". At this the old cook replied, in such a thick accent that I almost couldn't understand him, "New England huh? He's prob'ly a gawd-damned Notre Dame fan". All I could do was look away and try not to laugh, which surely would have meant my demise.
Eventually I went out to the car and changed into a plain white Adidas shirt. We ate our breakfast with many angry, suspecting eyes glued to us. It was very disconcerting. We paid our bill and got the hell outta Dodge as fast as we could. When we met up with Randy's friend Shaun and told him what happened, he laughed and said "Rik, what are you doing, trying to get yourself killed?"
That night we watched sophomore wonder Peyton Manning and the University of Tennessee Volunteers beat the Georgia Bulldogs in overtime. To this day, It remains the only college football game I've ever been to.